It’s not a far-fetched as you might think.
In fact, in the winter of 1895-96, bird-feeding pioneer, Elizabeth B. Davenport of Brattleboro, Vt., fed the birds at her window with hemp seed. Full of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, hemp seed was widely available at the time at feed and grain stores and was adopted by early wild bird feeding proponents.
Yes, hemp, Cannabis sativa, also known as the recreational and medical drug, marijuana. But, for clarification, there are huge differences between “industrial hemp” and “psychoactive hemp.”
The use of hemp seed to feed wild birds is documented in the new book, Wild Bird Feeding in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation, by Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker and Carrol L. Henderson (Texas A&M University Press).
Of high nutritional value and easily acquired, hemp was simple to grow, too. A “Plant for the Birds” campaign by the Massachusetts Audubon Society in May 1917 included this advice: “Hemp is… easily raised in the ordinary backyard garden. It grows five or six feet tall in good soil, its fern-like foliage and graceful shape making it rather ornamental. The flowers are greenish plumy tufts at the branch tips. The seeds are numerous and much loved by birds.”
And, in his 1941 book, Audubon Guide to Attracting Birds, the iconic ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson called hemp, a favorite with seed-eaters: “In a mixture of cracked corn and smaller seeds, hemp always goes first.”
And hemp seed would probably be as popular as black oil sunflower seed among backyard bird feeders today were it not for the passage of the federal Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 and the subsequent U.S. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Hemp plants can still be found growing wild in ditches and farms in the mid-South, surviving from World War II-era plantings to provide cordage, rope and cloth for the war effort. Some state and federal agencies have entertained ways to revive industrial hemp production, and portions of the most recent Farm Bill make hemp exploration – even including birdseed use – possible.
Book co-author Paul Baicich laments that the use of hemp as birdseed still has a long way to go. But one day, he says don’t be surprised to see bags of hemp seed in your local feed store marked: “Product of the USA.”
Are you among the estimated 55 million Americans who feed birds in your backyard? Would you use hemp seed if it were available?